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ANCIENT AND BEAUTIFUL VERSES

A TREASURY OF SANSKRIT POETRY Edited by A.N.D. Haksar, Shipra, Rs 350

What has come to be known as Indology started as the European’s attempt to study and evaluate the cultural history of the colonized country and later merged with Indian scholars’ revitalized urge to know their cultural roots. Thus William Jone’s rendering of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (1789) and Charles Wilkin’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita (1784) were followed by Rammohan Roy’s rendition of the Isa Upanishad in 1816.

In his comprehensive anthology of Sanskrit poetry written over an enormous time-span of three thousand years, A.N.D. Haksar marks a noted departure from the traditional Indologist approach. A Treasury of Sanskrit Poetry puts emphasis on “the poetic riches” of the Sanskrit language, while Indologists looked upon it primarily as a language of religion and philosophy. Care has been taken to accommodate lesser known poets, even anonymous ones. Classical Sanskrit poetry coexists happily with Prakrit and Apabhramsa poems, the sacred with the secular, the philosophical with the erotic, the narrative with the lyrical verses.

One of the ostensible aims of Haksar’s anthology is to play the traditional oriental canons of poetry against the Western canons. He intends to achieve this “not through learned discourse, but by letting poetry speak for itself”. The translations, which obviously entail a Herculean task of transculturation, are selected from renderings — often more interpretative than literal — by a number of translators for over two hundred years. These include Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, William Jones, W.B Yeats, Octavio Paz, A.K. Ramanujan, among others. In this sense, the book does also represent a brief history of English translations of Sanskrit poetry.

The poems provide glimpses into the grandeur of Sanskrit poetry, full of stunning similes and dense, vibrant metaphors. Take for example this description of the onset of rain in Romesh Dutt’s translation of The Ramayana: “The Sky seems bruised, its bandages — / Tufts of soft and fleecy clouds,/ Moving from the ruddy dusk,/ Coppery, silver just at their edges”. Or the black humour on poverty in Sudraka’s Mricchakatika: “Ah, Poverty, I mourn for your sad fate./…Where will you find a home when I am dead'”

In capturing the diversity of Sanskrit poetic genres over centuries, the anthology automatically throws light on Indian society, both pre- and post-Vedic. However, a few pointers about the metrical schemes of the original compositions would have come in handy.

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